The United States of America defense budget: Inertia over strategy

Eric Gomez and Jordan Cohen

The FY22 National Defense Authorizat-ion Act (NDAA) recently inched closer to becoming law when the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) voted to send its version to the full House. The HASC version of the bill authorizes $24 billion more than the Biden administration’s request and follows the lead of the Senate Armed Services Commit-tee (SASC), which passed a bill authorizing $25 billion more than the administration’s request in late July.

The HASC and SASC authorization hikes are a product of strategic inertia in Washington that drives defense spending ever upwards without any sense of priority or focus. The Biden administration was right to end the war in Afghanistan, but this nod to restraint does not make a coherent strategy.

The administration’s interim strategic guidance document released earlier this year talks about “setting clear priorities within our defense budget,” but the list of things that the administration expects the military achieve is still far too long.

The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan ought to prompt reflection on two decades of defense strategy that achieved little benefit at high costs. Military power can be useful, but the US experiences in Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror more broadly demonstrate the limitations of what the military can achieve. The US military did not fail in Afghanistan or other Global War on Terror theaters because it did not have enough resources. It failed because it was deployed in the service of strategic goals that were simultaneously ambitious and amorphous.

Without introspection and a change in grand strategy Washington is doomed to continue a cycle of setting unrealistic goals that it fails to achieve despite high levels of defense spending, which in turn justifies throwing more money at the problem instead of adjusting the goals.

There are early indications that the Biden administration will fall into this cycle even if it can successfully extricate the United States from the forever wars due to the rise of great power competition. Both the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) authorizations mentioned that additional defense spending is necessary for great power competition—especially with China—without defining what said competition is supposed to achieve.

Competition is not a strategy. It emphasizes means (military power) but does not have a clearly defined end. Militarily, Washington is coalescing around the idea that successful great power competition means the United States sustaining military advantages over potential adversaries in their own backyards. Given China’s capacity to balance against US enhancements to its military position in East Asia, reaching an end state of durable US military overmatch will be nigh impossible to achieve.

The Biden administration could break this cycle by adopting a grand strategy of restraint that does away with the expectation that the United States must sustain military overmatch. By shifting a larger share of the defense burden onto allies that have strong interests in resisting Chinese aggression, the United States could field a smaller force posture that is geared toward defense instead of maintaining superiority. Allies face strong incentives to protect disputed territory from attack and would therefore be likely to increase their self-defense investments if the United States reduced its own. Some US allies are already making such defense investments, but at a slow pace.

Some parts of the defense spending increase in the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) could be consistent with a restraint-oriented military strategy.

Investments in long-range, precision-guided munitions, submarines, and emerging technology, for example, would make it easier to defend against China’s growing air and naval power. However, the HASC increase falls short in other areas, such as its efforts to block the retirement of outdated legacy capabilities like older Ticonderoga class cruisers. The combination of US regional allies spending more on their own defense and smarter US investments designed to achieve a narrower set of strategic goals means the United States could spend less on defense.

Another security benefit of the restraint-oriented strategy is that spending on this defensive weaponry helps reach a stable balance with China that is less threatening than seeking military overmatch. This approach could rein back the current spiral of increasing US-China threat perceptions that is contributing to higher defense spending in both countries.

Washington should take advantage of the opportunity for strategic introspection that the withdrawal from Afghanistan creates. The Biden administration needs to take the lead in defining a new, restraint-oriented military strategy that prioritizes defense rather than trying to maintain US overmatch. Congressional defense budget authorizers and appropriators will still face incentives to spend more on defense, but the administration can resist this tendency by laying out a compelling case for a different strategy.

Strategic introspection and change are necessary to end the inertia of ever-increasing military spending and begin a process that can lead the United States to spend smarter on defense instead of just spending more.

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